About Christmas TV History

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Overlooked Animation: A Mini-Guide to What You May Have Missed

One thing that has been confirmed for me this month during Animation Celebration: Christmas in July, is that animation certainly holds a special place in all of our hearts at Christmas time.  Today I'd like to remind you of a few lesser known animated holiday entertainments.  Maybe this will jog a few memories or perhaps inspire you to seek out something you've never seen before.  For your convenience: every title in this mini-guide has already been released on DVD. 

This is a must-see for Will Vinton claymation fans.

Many of us remember 1987's Claymation Christmas Celebration by Will Vinton.  However, most people only remember the special for one scene: the animated California Raisins singing an R&B version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."  But the half-hour TV special is actually a collection of claymation sequences each set to a traditional Christmas song.  What I'd like to remind you about is an earlier claymation piece also made by Vinton entitled A Christmas Gift.  This eight minute short film, made in 1980, takes its inspiration from the 1969 song "Christmas Dinner" recorded by folk singers Peter, Paul & Mary.  Not only is the animation top-notch but the story is restoring as two lonely, hungry people come together to share Christmas.  I've seen this short film used as interstitial filler on television but I suggest watching it on DVD--you'll want to be able to watch it over and over.

When you know what to look for, you can often still find this short film airing on cable religious TV networks.

If you're a fan of claymation, then surely you've seen the two holiday short films 1998's The First Christmas and 2000's The Chimes, right?  Both of these animated pieces from Xyzoo Animation I've seen airing on PBS and elsewhere.  The story of The First Christmas is literally the first Christmas--the story of the Nativity, narrated by veteran actor Christopher Plummer.  The First Christmas is breath-taking animation with more detail than I've seen anywhere else.  Look for the white angel that appears to the shepherds to see the individual feathers on her wings flutter. The three wise men on their camels are so amazingly detailed that their garments and jewelry sway as they ride upon their camels.   I'm still in awe each time I watch it.

The Chimes, narrated by the prestigious British actor Derek Jacobi, is adapted from a story by Charles Dickens.  The story centers on Toby Veck, a poor man living in Victorian London who has dreams for a successful life for his daughter while he is constantly reminded of his lower class station in life.  This is quintessential Dickens and it takes place at the New Year's holiday.  If you're a fan of Dickens' holiday stories, I hope you'll give this animated version of The Chimes a chance.

1974's Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus is ultimately a story about hope.

In 2009, a CGI animated TV special Yes, Virgina, sponsored by Macy's, first aired on CBS in prime time.  I actually really like that new TV special--it's family-friendly, it's smart, and it looks good.  But I'm still the biggest fan of the animated TV special that I grew up watching, the 1974 version entitled Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.  It is produced and directed by Bill Melendez--the same guy who did A Charlie Brown Christmas.  You know the story right?  It's based on the true story of a little girl named Virginia O'Hanlon who wrote a letter in 1897 to the New York City newspaper, The Sun,  asking about the existence of Santa Claus.  The reply she received in print, written by the editor Frank Church, includes the line “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus...”  I not only adore the look of the 1974 TV special, but it is narrated by Jim Backus--remember Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol? And, the title song is sung by Jimmy Osmond, the youngest of Donny & Marie's many brothers.  Did you grow up watching this TV special like I did?

Do you know where Santa's magic comes from? Let the 2000 animated movie The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus explain it.   

Another animated entertainment that is often overlooked is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.  You say you've seen the 1985 Rankin/Bass stop motion animated special?  But have you seen the feature-length version made in 2000 featuring the voice cast of Robby Benson, Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook?  I fear most TV viewers may overlook this version because it has the exact same title as the Rankin/Bass story.  However, the 2000 animated movie looks quite differently--it is made in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon, as in traditional animation. 

Both versions of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus are adapted from the same source--the 1902 children's book written by L.Frank Baum, who also wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz series of books.  I'm not going to say that this 2000 animated movie is better than the Rankin/Bass version--I'm actually not sure which I like better.  But I will say most people I talk to don't even know this version exists merely because it is confused with the 1985 version with the same title.  I do however, find it very interesting to see an origin story for Santa Claus that was originally dreamt up at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century.  In the past, I've seen this animated movie airing on the Cartoon Network.  Last year, I found it on DVD at Walmart.  Have you seen this animated movie version?  Do you like it more than the Rankin/Bass version?

My version of the 1950 movie The Great Rupert has been colorized.

At Christmas time, I like to sit back and watch old Hollywood movies--especially ones with a holiday theme.  Have you ever watched A Christmas Wish also known as The Great Rupert?  This 1950 film, directed by Irving Pichel, stars Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore, and Tom Drake.  Why do I bring up this forgotten black-and-white movie now?  Because it includes stop-motion animated segments produced by the Academy Award-winning animator, George Pal. 

This charming but quirky film includes a squirrel named Rupert that is brought to life on screen through stop motion animation.  Rupert is a trained squirrel originally owned by a guy in vaudeville hoping to create a sensational new act.  Rupert is trained to dance a jig while wearing a Scottish costume--I said this movie was quirky, didn't I?  Anyway, an impoverished family moves into an apartment at Christmas time and experiences a sudden windfall of money--a miracle they attribute to heaven's blessings.  What viewers see is this abandoned but trained squirrel Rupert pushing found money through the rafters of the apartment's ceiling which falls down to the new residents.  This comedy film is entertaining and adorable if you give it a try.  The animation that brings motion and control to the squirrel Rupert is also entertaining and adorable.  It's also fun to see an older Christmas movie that you've maybe never seen before.

What's your favorite overlooked animated Christmas entertainment?


  1. Loved seeing the image of The Great Rupert in color. I have it in b&w and think it is so cute. Love Jimmy Durante --- he is so funny! I will have to check out this colorized version.

    Also, I don't think I've ever seen the Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus cartoon from 1974. Is it available on DVD? I just love those old retro Christmas Classics!

    1. Yes--1974's "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" is on DVD.

      I love Jimmy Durante too--love him in the 1942 movie "The Man Who Came to Dinner"--another excellent Christmas movie. I love it when Rose Marie does her Durante impression in the 1963 Christmas episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and the 1969 Christmas episode of "The Doris Day Show." Have you seen those?

  2. I have several favorites in the obscure animation department. One is a story called THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which isn't the Rankin-Bass story with the mice, but is a limited animation half hour special which came out in the 1970s and told how Clement C. Moore came to write "A Visit from St. Nicholas." This story postulated that his oldest daughter Charity asked for a book about Santa Claus while he was away giving a lecture, but he couldn't find one. When he gets home, Charity is very ill and deliriously asking for her story, so he writes the poem. Then the poem is read.

    Although it was Saturday morning cartoon quality, I've always been impressed by the animation, which actually dresses the characters as if they were in 1822 (except for the little boy, who is in overalls; little boys in those days wore dresses until they started school), Gretchen the housekeeper cooks over a fireplace, as would have been done in those days, and Moore travels to his lecture in a stagecoach. It has a couple of sweet songs, and the poem set to the arrangement of music by Ken Darby, who first performed it for the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show.

    Another favorite is the Chuck Jones produced A VERY MERRY CRICKET, which was a sequel to THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE. In the previous story Chester the Cricket had come to NYC in a picnic basket and awed the city by being able to play a piece of music note by note after he hears it once on the radio. He returned home, and his friends Harry the alley cat (voiced by radio regular Les Tremayne) and Tucker the mouse (voiced by Mel Blanc) are now facing a bleak, noisy NYC Christmas. They think Chester's music would help bring the best out in the city's residents as he did the first time, and set out to Connecticut to bring him back. This is just a plain, cute cartoon with the voices of two radio veterans.

    This is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mCMLf4E2W4

  3. The last animated special I want to mention was very non-traditional: SIMPLE GIFTS: SIX EPISODES FOR CHRISTMAS, which was first broadcast on PBS in 1978. It had a very limited VHS release (libraries mostly) and I only found a copy just recently). Call it "Christmas animation for adults," six very understated pieces introduced by Colleen Dewhurst.

    The prologue by Maurice Sendak is the short simple story of a poor little boy who turns into a Christmas tree and uses his own warmth to warm others. The six main stories are:
    1. "A Memory of Christmas," from the memoirs of Moss Hart: archival photographs of New York City mixed with aged sepia-tinted animated stills of actors portraying Hart's family.
    2. "Lost and Found," based on the "Toonerville Trolley" comic strip, animated in that archaic style; the one real humorous story of the group.
    3. "December 25th, 1914," mixed animation and archival photographs to tell of an incident during the World War I Christmas truce, taken from a British officer's memoir.
    4. "The Great Frost," based on "Orlando" by Virginia Woolf, with delicate children's book-like illustrations telling the story of a Great Ice Fayre held on the frozen river and of a romance that develops between a young Englishman and a Russian princess. This is the longest piece of animation and the one most people who remember this special will recall.
    5. "My Christmas," charcoal-sketch limited animation taken from the diary of 11-year-old Teddy Roosevelt.
    6. "No Room at the Inn," line-drawing animation, with no dialog, by R.O. Blechman about the Nativity that takes a poke at modern consumerism.

    All the segments are on YouTube:
    Introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2tbVaDqHXA
    Moss Hart segment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08hMvJ-Sv7Q
    Toonerville Trolley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCiKra1lYW4
    Great Frost: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwfYKoN4f2U
    Teddy Roosevelt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xveSs3egS4w
    Christmas Truce: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBxxZHxuMnc
    "No Room at the Inn": "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KV35HubyhLQ

    1. Linda--that is some awesome animation. Thanks for sharing. I hope PBS' "Simple Gifts" comes out on DVD some day soon. And, one of our guest bloggers is writing about "A Very Merry Cricket" in 2 weeks. Lots of good stuff :D

  4. The Bear who Slept through Christmas starring Tom Smothers

    1. I haven't seen that one in a long time! I'm a big Tom Smothers fan, so I gotta see The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas again.

    2. YYESSS! "The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas" is another overlooked one. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Going to have to look for that claymation version of "The Chimes" and the Melendez version of "Yes, Virginia"! Thanks for posting about these!